What’s Cooking Wednesday: Spring has Sprung!

It shouldn’t come as any surprise considering how much I talk about them, but the Peterson Garden Project is hands-down one of my favorite organizations. I love their mission to teach people to grow their own food and, now that they have the Fearless Food Kitchen, to cook and eat the food they grow; I love their community involvement; I love how they align with so many of my own values. And now I’m officially part of their team!

It’s a gig that I couldn’t be more thrilled about. I’ll be helping them with communications, especially getting the word out about their new classes. There’s some great stuff coming up–I can guarantee I’ll be at this class on making your own bacon–and I can’t wait to share!

In other news, while I don’t have a recipe for you this week, last weekend was the most inspired I’ve been in the kitchen in what feels like months. It was wonderful. I will have a recipe (hopefully two) to share next week (a hint–one of the recipes is pictured below).

Last weekend's projects

Happy spring, everyone!

Brownies for my Grandpa

Almost two weeks ago, my grandpa died. I’ve been debating writing about this for a lot of reasons, but if this blog is about anything other than food, it’s about family, and he was an important part of mine. It would be selfish of me not to share what I can of him with the world.

My grandparents

There are many, many things that made my grandpa a great man, but they can all be distilled down to one undeniable truth–he loved people, especially his family, and people loved him. Sometimes–well, let’s be honest, often–that love, and his sense of humor, was kind of goofy, a little teasing or sarcastic, possibly, occasionally crude (though never crass or dirty; he (almost) never swore), but always unique to him–even if the joke itself wasn’t unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandma’s (lovingly) rolled her eyes at the same joke for the entire 63 years they were married.

Three weeks before he passed away was Paczki Day, Fat Tuesday. I hadn’t planned on making any, or shipping them overnight to Cleveland where there’s no shortage of good paczki to be had. Still I found myself frying up two dozen golden little donuts filled with my homemade jam that Sunday night, tucking them safely into boxes for their journey. My grandma brought one to my grandpa in the hospital, leaving instructions with his nurses to microwave it a little; paczki are better warm. She told me later that he called her that night to tell her to thank me and that it was delicious.

60th wedding anniversary

I was lucky enough to see him the next weekend and despite how simply not like my grandfather he looked–there’s something that twists your heart and makes you feel so old when you realize the people you always, always knew to be big and tall are not so much anymore–the eye-roll-inducing humor and good spirit remained, for which I could not be more grateful. We chatted for a bit and I asked again if he liked the paczki and he said he did, joking he gained four pounds just from one. I reminded him I could make and ship him anything he wanted, cookies, or maybe brownies. “Ooh, brownies…” My grandpa, as my mom later reminded me, loved chocolate.

Two weeks later, as I prepared for another trip to Cleveland, this time to be with my family and celebrate my grandfather’s life, his “Ooh, brownies” kept ringing in my ears. And so, again, I found myself in the kitchen mixing and baking when I should have been packing and sleeping. Somehow the brownies were more important than anything else at that moment. There’s comfort in sharing food with loved ones, especially during a hard time, but making and bringing those brownies with me was purely selfish–it was the last thing my grandpa asked me for and what kind of granddaughter with a food blog and a penchant for cooking for an army would I be if I didn’t deliver?

Nothing says love like fattening up your family

There isn’t enough time or space or simply the words to share my memories of him, but it’s the little things I keep thinking about and telling anyone who will listen. How he made me his specialty of bacon scrambled into eggs when I had chicken pox as a kid. How we’d always go out for Italian food when he and my grandma were in town and he’d always joke with the waiter about how he was on a fixed income before placing his usual order of veal parmesan and a glass of “white zin.” His voice in the back of my mind as my car crapped out the week he died: “You should’ve bought a GM. When’s the last time you got the oil changed? And maybe take it to the car wash once in a while.” The pride in his voice echoing through the hall as I walked across the stage to get my Master’s degree: “You go, girl!!”

My graduation

My sisters and I are so lucky, not only to have had him as an incredible grandfather and for the limitless love he gave us, but for how we’ve benefited from how he and my grandma raised their first born, my mom. My aunt said in her eulogy that my grandpa raised his daughters to be independent (and, among other essential life skills, to know the power of duct tape; how to use a lawnmower and a snow blower; and to appreciate a good power tool). Through my mom, how she’s lived her life, made her own way, my grandpa’s lesson came to me. I know he was so proud of her just as he was proud of me. And I could not be prouder to be his granddaughter.

Mom and Grandpa, dancing
Mom and Grandpa, dancing. He loved to dance.

Thanks, Grandpa. I made you some brownies.

Brownies with Walnuts
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What’s Cooking Wednesday: The Beach

Sorry for the silence lately, the weather has gotten me a bit down and, with it, any kitchen inspiration other than egg sandwiches, take out, and freezer leftovers. But this weekend starts Daylight Savings and an extra glorious hour of light when I get home, the temperatures are slowly creeping above freezing, and I got to spend last weekend enjoying this view. I can’t complain.

Savoring the last few hours of warm sun and water. And slushy rum-y ice cream drinks.

I actually said yesterday "I love summer!" I forgot it was February. #heaven

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What’s Cooking Wednesday: Digging In with Peterson Garden Project

You know who throw the best parties? People who love food. That pretty much explains why the Peterson Garden Project’s “Dig In!” kitchen warming and benefit for the new Fearless Food Kitchen was such a blast–an event put on by a group that helps people grown their own food in order to raise money to teach people how to cook good food. (Not to mention, it’s always fun to get a little fancy, especially for a good cause. And really, really good food.)

Community Swanky

The party kicked off with fantastically creative cocktails (many with homemade liqueurs and infusions) and a delicious spread of cheese, fruit, and other nibbles while everyone mingled and checked out the new kitchen space (and snuck a peek of dinner being prepared in the kitchen). It was wonderful to talk with so many people excited about the space and see so many equally happy to donate towards everything from whisks and spatulas to serious kitchen hardware like mixers and ovens. My favorite part, though, was watching the inspiration wall fill up as people wrote about those who inspired them to cook and garden.

Bartenders doing good work So much to choose from inspiration cards

As cocktails ended, everyone moved to the dining room, long tables beautifully decorated and perfect for a community meal. And oh, the food. Delicious doesn’t begin to describe, and really should go without saying, considering the chefs for the evening were some of the best (and some of my favorites) in Chicago. It took all my willpower (and the reality of a very small purse) to keep from swiping a basket of bread from Baker Miller to take home. Two distinctly different, but equally amazing salads, started the meal: a hearty dish of creamy white beans, potatoes, and pickled vegetables from Joe Frillman (Balena) was a wonderful reminder of what can be done in mid-winter with produce put up in spring and summer; on the opposite end of the spectrum, a fresh, bright, citrusy, spicy salad of apple, mango, and tomatoes from Patty Neumson (Herb, now topping my lists of restaurants to try). I could have been happy eating just these three things for dinner.

Time to eat Good food, good wine, good conversation

Oh but there was more. My first taste of lamb sweetbreads (they were good!), fried and served over white beans and a salad of corn and squash from my favorites, Brad Newman & Michael Taormina (Cookies & Carnitas). Perfectly braised pork with olives and melon by Chris Pandel (BalenaThe BristolFormento’s); a tasty and light tofu and vegetable dish from Alvin Yu (Fyusion Dining).

The main course that everyone was talking about at the end of the night though, was the short rib by Erling Wu-Bower (Nico Osteria). You could tell who took their first bite by the chorus of “oh my god”s running down the table–I didn’t even get a picture it was gone so fast. It was perfection down to the Roman gnocchi (my new favorite thing, more like polenta cakes than the traditional potato dumpling-style of gnocchi) and roasted celery root. I don’t even like celery or celery-flavored anything and this converted me. Lord, that was good.

My first sweetbreadsDelicious porkAnd of course, dessert. Because what would a meal like this be without it? Cranberry upside-down cakes with a perfectly sweet and sour sour cream gelato from Amanda Rockman (Nico Osteria, who is also teaching a class on making her iconic gateau basque next month) and a chocolate chip cookie from Baker Miller that was bigger than the saucer for my coffee. I wasn’t the only one who figured out that the best combination was putting the gelato on the cookie, which tasted like what every ice cream sandwich wishes it could be. (Want to know how good that cookie was? So good I actually forgot my purse in favor of searching for a cookie to take home.)

That sour cream gelato is the stuff of dreams

Garden cocktail party chic
LaManda Joy, founder of the Peterson Garden Project, and me.

Everyone involved in putting this dinner together did an amazing job on every detail, from the gorgeous centerpieces and the wonderfully attentive waitstaff, to the great live music, the cute garden gift bags. Extra kudos to the volunteers who came back the next day in the midst of the fifth largest snowfall in Chicago to clean up.

While digging into a great meal is always a treat, it’s almost time to dig into the soil too (I know, it’s hard to imagine the ground will ever not be frozen). PGP’s new gardener sign-up just opened this week; if you’re interested, register soon spots go fast (and don’t be afraid of the waitlist, it’s how I got in last year)!

I just renewed my little plot at “Vedgewater” and can’t wait to get back outside, tending to my tomatoes, getting dirt under my nails, trying to figure out what’s killing my cucumbers, plucking sweet peas and strawberries to eat as soon as I get home. Soon, soon!

6-5-14 garden

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate

Believe it or not, there are actually two things better than eating a dessert that includes chocolate, nuts, and booze. One: using said dessert to help raise nearly $900 for a local food charity. Two: catching the look on this cutie’s face while she was chowing down on one.

Should I? Yep.

How did I learn this? The Hideout’s Soup and Bread dinner. Every Wednesday from January to the first day of spring for the past four years, The Hideout, a funky little bar and music venue in Chicago, hosts a community dinner where six or seven people (chefs and home cooks alike) each volunteer to make different kind of soup–the night I was there choices included roasted tomato, chicken and dumpling, sausage and artichoke, and French onion. The dinner is open to anyone and everyone, and is “pay-what-you-can” with the money going to that week’s chosen charity (usually food-related).

Circle of pecan bars

Since I couldn’t get there early enough to contribute a soup, I was happy to find out they welcomed other treats too. What better excuse to try a bar version of one of my favorite Christmas cookies? With bourbon. And chocolate. I found a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that was perfect–a salty, nutty shortbread-ish crust topped with a gooey, caramel-y layer flavored with bourbon and vanilla and studded with pecans. As for the chocolate (my own variation), well, if you’re going to gild the lily, you may as well gild it with chocolate.

Crust is almost ready Whisking in the butter Three components

By the time I got to The Hideout around 6, dinner was in full swing and it was packed! I had no idea how many people to expect–20 maybe? It was nasty and snowy and just generally the beginning of February in Chicago and who wants to go out in that? A whole lot of people, it turns out, filling every seat in the place. It reminded me so much of big family dinners–everyone loud and happy and brought together by the promise of a good meal, the kind that warms you up from the inside out.

I barely had time to set my tins down before the bars started disappearing, and they were completely gone within the hour. People must have enjoyed them, if the woman who rolled down her car window and yelled “Your pecan bars were great!” at me as I was leaving was any indication (thank you lady in the car, that made my night!).

Pecan bars Soup and Bread at the Hideout Nothing like a bowl of soup on a snowy night

The best part though? To quote the email I got on Thursday: “We raised an amazing $849! That definitely surpassed our expectations and we’re thrilled to put the donations to use in our Consumer Choice Food Pantry, and for those in need of emergency food.”  A little sugar buzz never hurts to open wallets.

If you’re looking for a good dinner with good people for a good cause, check it out. I’m hoping to go at least once more before they’re over for the season, so you never know, there might be pecan bars to go with the soup and bread!

Snowy day, great for baking
What’s better than soup, bread, and pecan bars on a day that looks like this?

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate
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Take That, Snow!

Snow, snow, and more snow. Tis the season, I suppose, and in all fairness this has been a not-terrible winter. While I guarantee I will still whine and complain about the waiting-for-the-snow-plow-to-unbury-my-street and digging-out-my-car parts, it is nice to have a Sunday’s-worth of plans canceled in favor of a few cooking/baking projects to basically say “Take that, snow!” (after, of course, an emergency trip to the grocery store since I was out of eggs. And milk. And sugar. All set on bread though!).

Mushroom wild rice soup

After making a veritable cauldron of roasted beef stock, I was looking to put it to good use–something other than beef barley (want to guess what I forgot to put on my list for that emergency grocery run?). Beef goes well with mushrooms, and maybe…some wild rice? Sounded good to me.

Perfect wild riceMushrooms, onions, and other goodies

One of my Christmas gifts this year was a subscription on America’s Test Kitchen online recipe archive, so I’ve been on a bit of an ATK bender since the new year. Lucky me, one of the recipes in their archives was wild rice and mushroom soup, and easy enough to use beef broth instead of chicken. And since I had a bunch of beef cooked and shredded in bits and pieces left over from making stock, it went into the soup as well.

Cooked downMarbled soup

Well, if I can’t beat the weather (I did try!), I may as well embrace it, and this soup was basically a bowl of snow day winter coziness. Stick-to-your-ribs from the wild rice, beef, and mushrooms; a little bit bright with the lemon and chives; rich and creamy (but not so rich that you can’t have a second helping–we’re embracing winter after all, right?).

Bonus–it went perfectly with that monster loaf of rye bread.

Marbled cream

Wild Rice, Mushroom, and Beef Soup
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What’s Cooking Wednesday: Fearless Food and Inspiration

Who, or what, inspires you in the kitchen? If you’ve been reading here for very long, it’s no secret that my family and family history inspire me. Gardening with my dad and the lessons he learned growing up on a farm, how to save what you grow and put everything to good use (snout to tail way before it was trendy), seeing the stash of pickles and other preserves my grandma put up in the cabinet my grandpa built for her, the canning my aunt still does. Cooking with my mom, learning to expand my palate, the joys of sharing good food with good friends and family, the love in recipes and traditions that have been passed down from my great-grandmother and great-grandfather to my grandmother and grandfather, aunts, uncles.

In the past year, I’ve grown my very first vegetable garden, swapped food and stories with new friends, and taken classes to learn new recipes. The common theme? The Peterson Garden Project.

New home of the Chicago Food Swap

This post was originally just meant to help PGP get the word out about their upcoming kitchen-warming (I’ll get to that in a second), but as I wrote, I realized how important the garden and its new kitchen space have been to helping me grow, if you’ll pardon the pun. This is kind of community movement I want to see more of and that I’m so grateful to have in my neighborhood.

Next Saturday, January 31 from 6-9:30 p.m., Peterson Garden Project and the Fearless Food Kitchen are having a kitchen warming and benefit to officially kick things off with amazing food and drinks from some pretty amazing locals:

  • Amanda Rockman and Erling Wu-Bower of Nico Osteria
  • Brad Newman and Michael Taormina of Cookies and Carnitas (if you haven’t been there yet, go, now, immediately)
  • Dave and Megan Miller of Baker Miller (another you should go to immediately, this place is 100% worth the nationwide press they’ve been getting for their locally grown and in-house milled grains. I’ve got some of their tri-color grits and steel cut oats at home waiting to be put to good use.)
  • Chris Pandel and Joe Frillman of Balena
  • Patty Neumson of Edgewater’s new Herb Restaurant
  • Tangley Oaks Wines
  • Terlato Spirts

The chefs will be talking about who inspired them to cook and creating the menu around this theme. It will be a great time, I hope you can go!

The kitchen also has a ton of amazing classes coming up: fermentation, spaghetti and meatballs, classes on garden planning (never too early to start dreaming about spring), and the one I can’t wait for, Basque cake with Chicago pastry chef Amanda Rockman herself. (Oh, and if you sign up for the class on January 22 (“Cooking the Books” on Mark Rhulman’s How to Roast) or January 24 (“Let’s Get Saucy“) you can save $5 by using the code “PGPflyer”.)

Great class in a beautiful space!

On the topic of fearless food, I’m curious–what foods are you afraid to cook? For me, steak and fish are the two biggest things I shy away from. Overcooked steak and fish are just bad, and I hate risking making something inedible with not-exactly-cheap ingredients. Plus I’m always worried my kitchen will smell like fish for the rest of the day.

And finally, a reminder–only five months until I can enjoy this view again!

June garden in full swing

Winter Comfort Bread

One of my long-time food quests has been to make a really good, crusty, crunchy loaf of bread. A loaf of bread that’s sturdy and solid and meant to stand up to a lengthy dunk in a steamy bowl of soup or stew. Not a soft, sweet, buttery sandwich bread, but winter comfort bread. I think I finally found it, and it’s the easiest bread I’ve ever made.

The most gorgeous loaf of bread to ever come out of my kitchen

In the past, I’ve tried using two different kinds of baking stones to get the heat of a wood-burning hearth oven, adding a pan of boiling water to my oven or spraying down the walls with water to replicate its steam, and plenty of other tricks. They all work, sort-of. But I didn’t want a sort-of loaf.

You'll need a lot of flour and some really big bowlsGluten-y

This is a loaf to be reckoned with. It uses four pounds of flour, first of all. It will take your biggest mixing bowl and the better part of two days. It’s easiest to cut into hunks and chunks, perfect for serving warm, slathering thickly with butter, and soaking up a rich broth.

Bread dough, post salt waterPretty round bread babies

Conveniently, this is also one of the easiest breads I’ve made. The two days is mostly just waiting. There’s no kneading; you don’t need a mixer. The timing works on your schedule–the pre-ferment can probably wait an extra day; the dough, after the first rise, can be put in the fridge until you’re ready to bake it (I didn’t get around to baking my second loaf for nearly a week–it was still delicious, though a little denser than my first loaf).

Scored and ready to bakeJust a quick peek!

Fair warning: this recipe makes two humongous loaves of bread–if you didn’t guess from the aforementioned four pounds of flour. Unless you have a giant cast iron pot, or just want a more wield-y option, I’d suggest splitting this into four loaves.

Perfect with soup

Crusty Bread Continue reading

Dining and Drinking in Paris, Part 2

A long overdue continuation…When last we left our intrepid travelers, we were enjoying oysters on an upturned wine barrel, crepes with hard cider, and bread…oh, the bread.

Rain on its way

In today’s episode, two of the most quintessentially Parisian moments of the trip.

Nothing looks quite like a rain-slicked cobblestone street in Paris. An impromptu stop escape a downpour on our last evening, my friend Pam and I tucked into a corner table of a random cafe for an aperitif (Aperol spritz for me) and to watch the city hustle home.

Rainy cobblestones

Halfway through my drink, an older gentleman at the next table started speaking to me in French. I think he was telling me to button up my coat or wrap my scarf tighter against the wind and rain that kept sneaking in under the awning. Once he figured out the only way I could communicate was with a smile, he laughed and managed “I really must learn English sometime.”

Replying with “Your English is much better than my French” only earned me a confused look. Second try: “Your English–” and a thumbs up and a smile. “My French–” I shook my head “no” and made a rather disgusted face and he cracked up. He wished me bonsoir with a smile before he left. It was one of my favorite moments of the trip.

Then it was a mad dash through the rain to get ready for…

Chez Denise
My last meal in Paris. I can only hope I’m a good enough writer to share how perfect this experience was–not just the meal, mind you, the experience. It was everything. A little hole in the wall restaurant in the heart of Paris; you’d walk right by it if you didn’t know it was there. A zinc bar, dark wood, red-checkered tablecloths. The 90-year-old owner and her red leather-bound book thicker than a phonebook filled with decades of hand-written reservations. Continue reading